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Mason Plumlee Is the Hidden Domino in Brooklyn Nets' Offseason

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2015

Brooklyn Nets center Mason Plumlee dunks the ball during the second half of NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, in New York.  The Nets won 102-100.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

One Mason Plumlee didn't exist this past season for the Brooklyn Nets. There were three. And that trio of personalities only adds confusion to an already messy Nets offseason.

It feels uncomfortable saying anything from "Plumlee was good this year!" to "Plumlee was bad this year!" The in-between doesn't work, either.

In actuality, it seemed like a bunch of different seasons wrapped into one. There was Season 1, when Plumlee began the year merely as a bench player; Season 2, when he broke out; and Season 3, when he collapsed in on himself.

At the start of 2014, most fans didn't even consider him to be an important role guy. The opposite was true. The talk back in November was that the big man had regressed from his first-team All-Rookie performance in 2013-14.

Plumlee averaged only 14.2 minutes a night to go along with 40 percent shooting over the first 20 games of the year. But then, it all changed—almost out of nowhere.

He put up ridiculous numbers over the next 26 contests, scoring 14.6 points and grabbing 8.3 boards in an increased role30.1 minutes per game.

He became an effective pick-and-roll threat.

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He set strong screens. He finished around the rim. He threw in more than 68 percent of his field-goal attempts during that period—mostly dunks and layups, of course.

But he was effective in doing so. Grantland's Zach Lowe, as smart a basketball writer as there is in existence, even mentioned in December that Plumlee was fulfilling "his NBA destiny as Tyson Chandler Lite," though he did throw a shade of sarcasm in there.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

It appeared that Plumlee had finally reached the level of play Nets fans hoped he would. He may have been in only his second pro season, but he was already 24 years old at the start. Four years in college will do that to you. And after a season-and-a-half with the Nets, Plumlee was rounding into a real player...until he unraveled.

Cue Part 3, when Plumlee reverted once again, this time in a different fashion.

As Brook Lopez lifted his play, Plumlee shrunk his, which wasn't much of a coincidence. Coach Lionel Hollins had to play Lopez, considering how elevated his game had become, and the two bigs couldn't produce together, even when things were going well for Plumlee.

The problem is that, even though Plumlee will occasionally play the 4, both are natural centers.

Lopez likes to operate close to the basket on both sides, as does Plumlee. But when they share the floor, Lopez ends up having to stretch away from the paint as a scorer, turning into a pick-and-pop centernot what you want from a guy who dominated post-All-Star-break basketball with a steady diet of floaters, offensive rebounding, putbacks and cuts to the rim.

Those don't happen if Plumlee is clogging up the middle.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Meanwhile, when playing next to Lopez, Plumlee has to defend 4s, which he's not always comfortable doing. So it never worked, and opponents outscored the Nets by 13.7 points per 100 possessions when they used lineups with both of those bigs during the regular season. By the end of the year, Hollins had gotten away from the combination, using it for a grand total of six minutes during the playoffs.

General manager Billy King has gone out of his way to say how badly he wants to bring likely free-agent-to-be Lopez back to Brooklyn. It's almost freaky how public he's been, like an overaggressive 16-year-old with a crush who's running around telling the whole world about his first and only love.

"I'll say it again, we want him back," King said in May, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "I want him back, Lionel (Hollins) wants him back, ownership wants him back. We've all said it. There shouldn't be any more doubts about it."

Lopez could pick up a $16.7 million player option for next year, but everyone and their mothers believe he'll enter free agency to guarantee more long-term money. And the Nets have a chance to bring him back, especially if they're willing to spend whatever it takes.

But what would that mean for Plumlee? If Lopez returns, wouldn't his presence devalue the Duke alumnus within Brooklyn's system?

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

So the Nets might have to go ahead and deal Mase this offseason, even if his value is low.

After the team refused to give him up in a rumored midseason trade, per ESPN.com's Chris Broussard (via ProBasketballTalk's Brett Pollakoff), that would've allowed the Nets to unload Deron Williams' contract on the Sacramento Kings, Plumlee's value is down from where it was when he was "dominating" (relatively, of course) back in December.

Plumlee is more dispensable now than the Nets believed he was when he was playing his best basketball. But selling low on someone isn't always a negative, even if the connotation is rarely a good one.

Remember this: Things can always get worse. And re-signing Lopez could kill Plumlee's trade value even more.

What if the Nets bring back Brook, and Plumlee averages the mere 17.5 minutes a night he did after the All-Star break this past season? There isn't much he'll be able to do to save his reputation, especially if he's spotty again as a 25-year-old during Year 3.

So the Nets may have to deal Plumlee for help (or to add incentives for some team to take on the Williams or Joe Johnson contracts). They can find a third big man to work with Lopez and Thaddeus Young as a tangential move. If a roster isn't going to be the most talented, a GM has to compose it to fit together perfectly.

Plumlee doesn't appear to be one of the proper pieces. Brooklyn might as well capitalize on his limited value while it still can.

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of June 15 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Contract information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

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